Naming the most important matchup of the Indianapolis Colts vs. Kansas City Chiefs playoff game isn't difficult.
It's Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis vs. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
To clarify, I'm not talking about Mathis vs. Smith in some sort of one-on-one fight to the finish. Frankly, Smith would be toast in that type of deal. Make that burnt toast, with the edges smashed. I'm talking about Mathis' tone-setting of the defense versus Smith's operation of the offense.
The last time they played – a 23-7 win for the Colts in Kansas City – Mathis' method prevailed. The Colts forced Smith into trouble (interception, sacks, temporary memory loss that caused him to quit putting the ball in Jamaal Charles' hands) and the Mathis defense capitalized.
It's an old adage, one that old-school Colts coach Chuck Pagano likes to talk about: The team that wins the takeaway/giveaway battle usually ends up winning the game.
The Colts defense knocked Smith down and stole his lunch money the first time they played.
If they can do it again at 4:35 p.m. Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, they'll win again. If not, then it could come down to coaching strategy and plays at the finish.
“To be a good defense, you gotta get turnovers,” Mathis said. “That's one of the foundations of being a good defense, getting the ball into your quarterback's hands. And we have a quarterback that can do some good things with it. So to be able to wrestle the ball away from the offense and get those extra possessions, it helps our team tremendously.”
Smith entered the last game with a reputation for making conservative, high-percentage decisions and earning the faint praise of being strong at managing a game. Let's face it, he's not the type of quarterback who's going to be in a debate of the flashiest, most-breathtaking in the game. His teams win because he handles his job and doesn't try to do more than he should.
That's why Mathis and the Colts rattling him, forcing him into mistakes, was such a game-changer last time and could be again.
Mathis knows there are no guarantees of a repeat. For example, he evoked the Colts' loss to the Steelers in the 2005 playoffs after beating them in the regular season.
“We beat them Monday or Sunday Night Football pretty convincingly,” Mathis said. “They came back and beat us first, we were a one-and-done team. And that was arguably the best team we had that year since I've been here. So don't fall for the banana in the tailpipe. They're coming to play, so you better come to play. Bring your A-game and your lunch pail.”
Incidentally, “banana in the tailpipe” is a reference to a line from the Eddie Murphy movie "Beverly Hills Cop,” and it means Mathis has been around awhile.
Smith obviously enters this game with the benefit of seeing the Colts defense at its finest and having a better idea of how to deal with it.
This could be one of the more fascinating parts of the game, seeing how Smith, Chiefs coach Andy Reid and the rest of his staff make adjustments to try to prevent a repeat of the first game where Mathis and friends dictated tempo and tone.
Most people feel the biggest change will be putting the ball in Charles' hands more often this time around. Charles carried 13 times for 106 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 38 yards. He's the Chiefs' best offensive weapon, and even Reid says they went away from him too much as the game progressed. Smith, meanwhile, was sacked five times and intercepted once.
Pagano calls Charles “Public Enemy No.1” and said he'll be surprised if Charles doesn't carry the ball 30 times.
“Running the ball is always a good thing to do,” Charles said when asked what he took from the teams' first meeting. “But at the end of the day, we know they're going to try their hardest to stop the run. You stop the run, you beat the Chiefs. So I know that's their main focus is stopping the run and let Alex throw the ball to the wide receivers.”
It's fair to say if the Colts don't slow Charles – or at the very least prevent him from big plays, because he will get some yardage from quantity of chances alone – they won't have a chance to force Smith into bad plays.
If they show they can slow Charles – and they did in not allowing him much as a check-down receiver the last time – then the pressure that led Mathis to 19.5 sacks this season can heat up again.
If Smith comes out looking better this time around, even in the simple “game management and ball protection” analysis, the Chiefs will have a much better chance of winning.
"Whatever game plan they come with, you just have to be on top of what you are,” Mathis said.
Colts-Chiefs, Part II, still comes down, in large part, to game manager vs. game disrupter.